Ford executive details auto maker’s autonomous vehicle plans

Ford has been one of the most vocal automotive manufacturers in the autonomous vehicle space, announcing back in 2016 that it will have a fully driverless vehicle ready to hit roads in 2021. Computer Dealer News reporter Mandy Kovacs got a chance to sit down with Matt Drennan-Scace, communications manager at Ford Canada, while at the 2018 Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto to chat about the company’s forward-looking plans.

[The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow]

CDN Now: Ford has really been a leader in the autonomous car space, putting out a definitive roadmap and setting 2021 as the goal to have one on the road. Can you share any details about this?

Matt Drennan-Scace: We’ve committed to a purpose-built autonomous vehicle on a hybrid platform by 2021 that will service in the ride hailing, ride sharing, or goods delivery type of businesses. We’re looking at a business service model for our first autonomous vehicle so [it will be less about consumers owning autonomous vehicles] at the beginning. We believe that we need to have a sound service and a sound business around autonomous vehicles first, and we believe that service industry will be the first area where [autonomous vehicles] will be able to be mass adopted.

CDN Now: You mentioned ride sharing as one of the first priorities and ride sharing companies like Uber are also working on autonomous services. Are you working with anyone to accomplish this?

Drennan-Scace: We work with a number of partners. We’re investing into Argo AI down in Pittsburgh [$1 billion over the next five years to develop a new software platform for Ford’s fully autonomous vehicle] and that’s where we test the Argo AI fleet. We also have the Ford Autonomous Team that’s testing in Dearborn, Michigan and we’ll be announcing a second city where we’ll be doing real-world testing in the future.

CDN Now: Could that second city be in Canada?

Drennan-Scace: The second location will be announced this year but I can say right now that we don’t have plans to test autonomous in Canada. It’s a global situation. [Editor’s update: Ford announced on Feb. 27 that the second city location for real-world testing is Miami]

CDN Now: What do you see the future of autonomous vehicles looking like?

Drennan-Scace: We believe in the future for smart cities and connected cities and connected vehicles that we need an architecture for vehicles to speak to other vehicles and infrastructure. So expanding on your questions about partners, we’re working with Qualcomm towards connecting vehicles to everything, which will allow vehicles to speak to other vehicles, speak to the infrastructure around them, speak to people by their cellphones, speak to bikes, etc. We believe that that is going to be the way to go because it will run on 5G, which is already getting heavy investment from the telecommunications, and having a separate spectrum for autonomous vehicles to allow for the amount of data that needs to be shared instantaneously, that that’s going to be the best way for vehicles to speak in an autonomous and connected world.

We announced recently that we’re bringing Autonomic [a Silicon Valley-based company that develops innovative mobility services] in house, and we’re working with them to develop the Transportation Mobility Cloud, which is opensource cloud software that we’re inviting everybody else, from cities to automakers and other tech companies, to work on. It’d allow cities to build what they need, but on a consistent network that was also used across the country, and we believe that that consistency is going to be important for the safety and the eventual adoption of this technology in cities.

CDN Now: In terms of how fast you see consumer autonomous vehicles hitting the market, where is that down the line?

Drennan-Scace: We believe there are different levels of autonomy and right now we have a number of level two vehicles on the road today with driver-assist features where the driver still must remain in control and aware at all times, but there are features to assist them. Then there’s level three, four, all the way up to five, which is a fully autonomous vehicle that can work in any conditions.

Obviously, in Canada we have intense weather, which plays a big factor in its adoption here. We think it will be quite some time before we will see level five [autonomous vehicles on the road] and that’s why we strongly believe in that sort of goods delivery or people moving-business. That is going to be the first step, and it will be in large cities where you may have geo-fenced areas at the beginning where those autonomous vehicles are able to work safely and integrate with other traffic. There’s going to be that turning point where there are some autonomous vehicles but still mostly non-autonomous vehicles, and when they’re sharing a road together, that’s going to be a big amount of work, both for automakers, for policymakers, for governments, and for cities.

CDN Now: On that note, are you working with policymakers or regulators in any level of government, either in Canada or globally?

Drennan-Scace: Yes, we’re always working with all levels of government around the world, but definitely in the United States and in Canada to prepare for the eventuality of autonomous vehicles. We continue to work with our government partners to talk about what an autonomous vehicle framework might be, what those policies are going to look like so that there’s a consistent approach for all automakers and all types of companies working in the system to follow.

CDN Now: With such an emphasis on ride sharing, will we see car ownership decrease – or even become obsolete? Will consumers gravitate to that sharing or leasing-type of ownership model?

Drennan-Scace: We don’t obviously speculate too much about the future. We believe that car ownership isn’t going away anytime soon, but we believe the idea of ownership will change over time as it has since the first cars became available. Not everybody will own, but we believe there definitely will still be a significant number of car owners. But on the flip side, there will be people that don’t own vehicles, particularly in large metropolis’ or mega cities, and there may be shared ownership models. There may be use-based ownership, instead of full ownership, that would work on a monthly basis or something.

CDN Now: Like a subscription-based model?

Drennan-Scace: Yes, exactly. There’s a number of ways it could go, though, and which ones will take hold, we’ll have to wait and see what the consumer preference is.

CDN Now: Ford was one of the first auto makers to reveal its plans for driverless cars, so do you think you’ll be first?

Drennan-Scace: We can’t comment on what other automakers may or may not suggest in terms of their timelines. We’re committed to putting an autonomous vehicle on the road in 2021, but we’re not looking to be the first to have one on the road. We’re looking to be the first ones to put a vehicle on the road with the appropriate safety and that meets consumer needs. We don’t want to be first just for first’s sake, but to be first with a consumer mindset behind it.

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Mandy Kovacs
Mandy Kovacs
Mandy is a lineup editor at CTV News. A former staffer at IT World Canada, she's now contributing as a part-time podcast host on Hashtag Trending. She is a Carleton University journalism graduate with extensive experience in the B2B market. When not writing about tech, you can find her active on Twitter following political news and sports, and preparing for her future as a cat lady.

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